Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Throwing It All Away

Last year, our family went hiking in the hills along the Selkirk Valley. This is a beautiful, unspoilt area full of tumbling waterfalls and heather where sheep and wild goats graze. You can see herons, red squirrels, owls, buzzards and sparrow hawks, among other wild animals, and even when it is cloudy and rainy, the scenery is breathtaking.

We had a friend of our daughter with us who, halfway up the hill we were climbing, suddenly remembered that she was afraid of heights. Personally, I thought it was more a case of her not wanting to huff and puff her way to the top simply for a chance to see a good view, but I played along and accompanied her and my daughter back down. We had to walk back to the car some three kilometers away, so I figured we would do something useful: we would pick up trash along the way.

Bear in mind that although the road we were on is fairly busy, this was in the autumn, and there was little traffic. In five minutes' time, perhaps one or two cars would pass us. I imagined that we might each collect up to one grocery bag full of rubbish along the way. We always take a lot of plastic bags along when we hike (they come in handy going down the really steep slopes if you happen to have weak ankles), and on this occasion we started off with six and found even more bags along the way.

By the time we got to the car, three kilometers away, we had filled every single bag and could not physically carry any more. When we finally reached our destination, we had over fifteen bulging bags of trash. And we weren't just burdened down with trash; we were filled with disgust for all the littering slobs who'd jettisoned it. By the time we relieved ourselves of those bags, we could have happily let the air out of the offenders' tires.

Here is a sampling of what we found tossed out along this beautiful, grassy, heather-studded road: disposable diapers, plastic bottles, newspapers, magazines (plenty of them pornographic), Styrofoam take-away containers, tires, shoes, clothing (you really do wonder), cigarettes butts (we left them), toys, half-eaten sandwiches, CDs and tapes, cigarette lighters, aluminum cans, glass bottles, dogs' collars and leashes, rope, sanitary napkins (used), candy wrappers, pantyhose, condoms, sunglasses and empty sunscreen bottles, empty pharmaceutical bottles, beer bottles, lightbulbs, empty lighter fluid cans, and umbrellas. Clearly, people were lightening their loads as they travelled.

Along the way, we amused ourselves by imagining what the oafish litterbugs we were picking up after looked like and what kind of cars they drove.

"They're lorry drivers," my daughter's friend said. "They throw their rubbish anywhere."

"They're probably other kids," my daughter sighed. "They can't be bothered to carry any of it home."

"They're everybody," I claimed. "Look at the stuff we've found! Diapers? That's families. Dog collars and dogfood cans? Dog owners, obviously. Cigarette lighters and cigarette butts? Smokers. Pantyhose? Someone on a hot date."

At precisely that moment -- this is the God's truth! -- a well-dressed man in a shiny-clean, brand-new Mercedes drove past us. Slowing down, he opened his window and leered out at us as he tossed out an empty can -- just like that. We all stopped in our tracks and stared after him, openmouthed. To this day I curse myself for not having had the presence of mind to get his license plate number.

"They're posh bastards!" exclaimed my daughter's friend, without missing a beat.



Brian said...

At least they were not taking potshots at the road signs !

I hope !


Katie Alender said...

I once saw someone veer nearly al the way off the 101 freeway running straight through Los Angeles so they could toss their litter down a hill. It was one of the most bizarre and disgusting little acts I've ever witnessed.

I just don't understand how people can be so self-centered. Littering strikes me as an indicator crime, like how serial killers all grow up torturing animals. Litterbugs have the potential for so much worse, I just know it!

Katie Alender said...

I can't type on this new keyboard. I meant "all the way", not "al the way". Al is nice but he's not the way.

A Paperback Writer said...

Does Scotland have a fine for littering the highway like so many States do?
I must say, though, considering the condition of the Meadows (a park) in Edinburgh every Sunday morning when I'd walk through it on my way to church before the street cleaners had gotten to it, I'm not surprised at what you describe. Every Sunday, the Meadows would be covered with cans, bottles, pizza boxes, used condoms, and various papers and trash.
Now, granted, it's beyond me why they don't have larger trash recepticals in that park -- because they're needed -- but it's still incredible to me that the park looked like it hadn't been cleaned in months after just one night -- every single weekend.
I know the Scots are the unhealthiest people in Europe because of their high levels of smoking and drinking and terrible eating habits (ah yes, the people who invented the deep-fried Mars bar), but they're not exactly as clean as the Swiss or the Germans either. (Far better than Spain, Italy, or France, though.)
You know I love Scotland, but the people aren't too good about this sort of thing.
I'm glad you picked up trash. What a good example you set for the two girls!

Mary Witzl said...

Brian -- I wish I could say this doesn't happen, but it does. And there are often signs that are switched around, too...

Katie -- There is something appallingly selfish about people who litter, and you are right: witnessing it is ugly. It's like watching someone say 'Here, take my filth, I don't want it.' If only we could reply, 'Well, neither do we, buddy' and chuck it back at them, right through the windows of their homes, or cars. Especially that Mercedes.

I can almost believe that litterbugs have the potential to do worse, given their basic arrogance. I just wish more of them would get caught in the act.

Love your comment about 'Al the way!'

PBW -- I can't say that people in Scotland are worse litterers than their English, Welsh and Irish cousins, nor can I say for sure that all who sullied that stretch of road were Scots. But whoever's doing it, shame on them -- especially for doing it in an area where the scenery is particularly beautiful. I've tossed the odd banana peel, apple core, or popsicle stick into the underbrush (biodegradable), and I've certainly been guilty of allowing incontinent children to wee in the bushes, but never in all my life have I littered with anything as big as a can or a bottle, and I cannot understand why so many people do it so freely. Maybe 'why not to litter' is something that ought to be taught to expectant mothers along with breathing exercises and nutrition.

Christy said...

I think that your daughter's friend hit that nail square on the head. That's disgusting that people think it's ok to throw their trash into the world. There's a particular highway exit on the way to my parents' house that is always heavily littered. I always get simultaneously annoyed by the litterers as well as by the highway department. You'd think that someone would pick up the hint and put a car friendly trash can on that corner.

Anyway, what's up with the plastic bags and hill descent? I'm picturing you riding the bag willy-nilly down the hill, screaming all the way. But that certainly can't be the case, can it?

Carolie said...

GAAAH! People make me so angry sometimes!

I took a particularly crunchy-granola, tree-hugging hippie-wanna-be friend to visit the spectacular mountaintop where I taught living history and environmental science. I couldn't wait for her to see the breathtaking views, the lovely log cabin lodge, the unspoiled beauty. We got out of the car, and she turned in a slow circle while I smiled, waiting for her reaction.

"Wow," she breathed. "This place is really spectacular!" Then she took a last drag on her cigarette, and nonchalantly flipped the butt into the woods. My eyes followed the tumbling arc of the little white stick, and I couldn't say a word. I simply stared at her.

It took her a full minute, standing and looking back at me, puzzled, before it occured to her what had astonished me. She sheepishly went tromping after the smouldering butt, retrieved it, put it out on the sole of her shoe, and dropped it into my outstretched, outraged palm.

I'm still smouldering at the memory.

I'm also curious about the plastic bags, and how they help weak-ankled climbers on hills. I LOVE Christy's idea and have to thank Christy for the fanatstic mental images I now have!

Kanani said...

I have some friends who organized a weekly trek to a country road to pick up trash. What they found each week filled up several large garbage bags. You wonder what chip is missing in these persons --if they did this because their parents did, or if their parents just never pointed it out.

Mary Witzl said...

Christy -- What you describe is EXACTLY the case, and I was hoping someone would ask me about this so I could elaborate! Given a very steep slope and few rocks, there is nothing quite like the ride you can take on a plastic bag. Simply smooth one out, sit on it with your legs outstretched (they serve as brakes), and away you go. My husband laughed himself silly watching me, but I figured I'd let discretion take the better part of valor given my bad ankles and poor balance. I'm thinking of marketing it as a low-cost cellulite-reducing therapy.

Carolie -- How interesting that you used to teach living history and environmental science!

I've had similar experiences. Once I was out driving with a friend and her father, and the father complained a lot about how people were trashing the roads. Then he cranked his window open and chucked out the coke can he'd been drinking from -- it was almost too much to believe. Clearly, he was not one of those 'every little bit can help or hurt' people.

Conversely, I once went hiking with a group in Japan, and one of the lads was a real pack-a-day smoker. I watched him warily at first, but as we hiked not only could I barely keep up with him, but I was deeply moved by how he would carefully tap the ash from each and every cigarette he smoked into his empty cans -- and he brought them all back down. Not being a smoker myself, I am often critical of smokers as they don't have a reputation for being ecologically minded. But this guy was just incredible, and I had such respect for him at the end of our hike. Especially since 90% of the people around us were flinging ashes and cans merrily about.

Kanani -- You're right -- you do wonder what chip is missing. And I try to imagine what the parents of litterers teach -- or don't teach -- their kids. My parents were extremely strict with us from a very young age and I've been the same with mine. And my kids, even given the fact that their rooms are ecological disasters, feel the same way about littering as I do -- especially after that 3-kilometer stretch.

Charlie said...

The desert here in Arizona is one big litterbox, and I'm not talking about cats. The biggest offenders are tires that blow out on the scorching pavements and are tossed aside, and plastic grocery sacks impaled on cactus.

In college, however, a friend paid his dues when he attempted to throw his cigarette butt out the window of his two-day-old Mustang. Unbeknownst to him, the butt blew right back in and while he was in class the car caught fire--a total disaster.

Carole said...

I also despise litterbugs. Well maybe not, but I despise the littering. I cannot understand why people think they are the only ones in the universe that matter. It is a most self-centered, egotistical action. And I don't believe Scots are the worst of it. My husband and I are always picking up garbage when we walk in parks, along roadsides, etc. and it never ceases to amaze us at how quickly a cleaned pathway will become cluttered, practically overnight.

A Paperback Writer said...

Oh Charlie, your story made my day. I've always hoped that would happen to some jerk who flipped his cigarette out the car window -- and onto my car.
And carolie -- go you! Way to play Smokey the Bear!
And Mary, I certainly would not class "fertilizing" the bushes in the same category as litter. As a camper in the early years of my life,, I have squatted behind many a bush.
I do like the National Parks' theme, though: take nothing but photos; leave nothing but footprints.

Oh, and I was astounded in Glencoe that there were no restrictions on where one could walk and hike. I even asked the guide about staying on the trail, and he told me not to worry about it. I had been indoctrinated against erosion and damaging of fragile ecosystems in the desert for so long, that I marveled that the guide walked all over wildflowers and such to show us things. I cringed following him.
(But then, I also couldn't bring myself to drink the stream water in Glencoe, either. Yes, my head understands that you can't get Rocky Mountain Fever in the Highlands, but a whole lifetime of "don't drink riverwater" is too hard to ignore.)

Carolie said...

Mary, I've had lots of odd and interesting jobs...from live-in nanny to circus wardrobe mistress, from living history teacher to wilderness survival instructor. One day I will have to post about them!

At the risk of losing any modicum of respect I might have earned in this forum, I have to admit -- I am a smoker. But I never smoke in the homes or cars of others, I never smoke in close proximity to non-smokers (especially children!) and I NEVER, EVER fling or drop my butts. It disgusts me to see scattered cigarette butts everywhere.

I guess humans feel safe and secure in the bubbles of their cars, which allows them to fling trash and cigarette butts out the window. I've seen (and heard) people do and say things from behind the perceived safety of the steering wheel that I doubt they'd ever do outside their vehicles.

APW, I can understand your hesitation to drink! As much as I always dreamed of being able to sip from unspoilt mountain springs, I was indoctrinated with the dangers of giardia, carried by deer and lurking in otherwise pristine waters, even those untouched by the hand of Man. I'm also as astonished as you that your guide was so nonchalant about leaving the path!

I do like the responsibility taken here in Japan. There seems to be quite a bit of littering, but I love the fact that my neighborhood has periodic "let's clean up!" days. Schoolchildren are let out of class, and hit the streets alongside their elderly neighbors and preschool siblings, everyone picking up trash, pulling weeds, etc. There is no "that's not MY yard!" or "I didn't drop that trash!" Everyone just pitches in. My favorite memory of such a day was pausing at a stop sign and seeing a withered old grandmother and a little boy of no more than 4, crouched back to back, bottom to bottom, both bent over industriously pulling weeds from the edge of the roadway.

(Ack, another hijack. You'd think I'd just post to my own neglected blog, wouldn't you?)

Mary Witzl said...

Charlie -- Honestly, I feel sorry for your friend, but that story just made my day! A two-day-old car? Dear God! Tell me that this made your friend a better person...No?

As for the blown-out tires, when I was a kid travelling with my family, we had a tire that blew out in the Arizona desert. I can remember having seen dozens upon dozens of abandoned tires along the road, but my father dutifully put our blown-out number in the back of our station wagon, where it made a rather hard pillow all the way to Gila Bend.

Carole -- They say that there is very little littering in Singapore (where the fines are very strict) or Switzerland (where the national character is largely responsible). I've never been to Singapore, but Switzerland did seem very tidy when I was there. But not everyone can be like the Swiss, and I have had Swiss people assure me that this is a good thing... Certainly there are places in the States to rival anything I've seen here, and the Japanese can be terrible litterbugs. I think there are very few countries where litter isn't a problem are -- though I would love to hear otherwise!

APW -- I also found it amazing that the guides were so blase about where one went in Glen Coe. I've had Scots tell me that they felt too 'monitored' in American parks, and after visiting national parks here I can see why. Lots of people in the U.K. actually live in national parks -- and not just the people who are involved in tourism, upkeep, etc. And there is a far more relaxed attitude about what you can do and where you can do it in British parks.

As for drinking from streams, I once did this (in desperation), and lived in fear afterwards that I had contracted Giardiasis. But I'm either fine -- or asymptomatic.

Carolie -- Wow. How many people can put 'Circus wardrobe mistress' on her C.V.? You shouldn't just post about the jobs you've done, Carolie, you should write books about them! I once translated death certificates for pedigreed dogs and I've always been proud of that one, but a circus wardrobe mistress beats that one all hollow!

As for your being a smoker, plenty of my friends and family are (doesn't that sound awful?), and most of them aren't anywhere as considerate as you! You sound like a permanent member of the firefly brigade (the 'hotaruzoku', so-called because at night all you can see of them is the burning tips of their cigarettes as they huddle on their balconies). Anyway, with considerate smokers like you, who needs non-smokers?

I do remember the neighborhood clean-up committees. We were always so busy that we were excused from joining in, but I do remember one winter day when a little granny showed up asking if we'd come and pitch in. I had a 103-degree fever and two kids throwing up, and I still felt guilty saying no...

Sam, Problem-Child-Bride said...

I think litterbugs is far too cute and endearing a term for these filthy scofflaws. Litterinsects I'd call them.

Mary Witzl said...

Sam -- I agree. An even better term is litter-slugs, as they're slothful creatures who make pretty things a little less pretty.

allrileyedup said...

That is so pathetic. I always pick up trash while I walk aroung the beach and I always leave, knowing that I left some behind because I didn't have the ability to hold anymore. It's sad. I like your daughter's friend's remark.

Mary Witzl said...

Good for you, Riley. My kids and I do this too -- I even have to stop them on the rare occasions when we don't have plastic bags on us.

People joke about how overly tidy Singapore is and how strict the police are against litterers. Personally, I'd love to see litterers seriously inconvenienced.